When I joined the team at the Basildon Standard Recorder I believe my editor, Tony Blandford, saw a chance to inject some fresh blood into features about the new town.
What was even better, as far as he was concerned, was that I was not just not from Basildon but I was not even from Essex and, better still, I was not even from England.
I became the Basildon Standard Recorder‘s resident Welshman, highly opinionated; seeing the English descendants of the Anglo Saxons and the Danes as incomers; and forever yearning for the valleys (although that was South Wales and I was raised in the more mountainous North).
The strange thing was that during my time in Wales I was more often taken for English thanks to my early childhood being spent in Buckinghamshire, one of the Home Counties. That is where I had learned to talk and had taken on the somewhat plummier accent of that region.
Of course not all my feature assignments required the Welsh background.
Take, for example, the advance piece I did on the opening of a zoo and ecology centre as a major attraction not just for the people of Basildon but for the wider area as well.
The whole piece was written as though the photographer and I had gone on safari into the heart of Africa. Considering the zoo was to be home to lions, leopards, chimpanzees, spoonbills and ibis, as well as tropical insects and crocodiles, the safari theme worked well. Of course we played down the fact that there would also be wallabies (Australia) and puma (the Americas) as well as other non-African animals, birds, reptiles and aquatic residents.
Another feature virtually fell into my lap when the RAF set up an exhibition on a plot of green land directly opposite the office.
The display including a jet trainer, genuine not a mock-up, as well as all the general recruiting posters and material, and a flight simulator to give visitors the chance to pilot a plane. The RAF had sent along a squadron leader to head the team in charge of the display.
Not only did he give me the ins and outs of RAF life and training but he also allowed me into the Gnat trainer for our photographer to get a shot of me as a flying ace. Fortunately I could not do any harm as it was a static display and it wouldn’t matter what button I pushed.
On another feature expedition I did actually get to go up in an military plane accompanied by some of the hardest men in the UK Armed Forces – the Parachute Regiment’s crack sky-diving team The Black Knights.
It involved a trip to Salisbury Plain and being shown around the training area seeing how the regular members of the Regiment are trained before going into details of the extra training needed to become a sky diver.
At this time, early 70s, skydiving as a sport was still in its infancy and the average newspaper reader did not know how much training and work went into doing an ordinary parachute jump, let alone sky-diving.
Most films showing non-military parachute drops (spies parachuting in to occupied France for instance) made it appear that a couple of static drops was all it took to prepare you for a night drop over unknown landing sites.
This is probably how I was able to get away with writing about parachute packing, practice drops and then what to do when I jumped out of the plane. It was only at the end that I explained how much training was really needed and made it clear that I would never have been allowed to jump after just a day with the team.
I did get to go up in the plane, however, and it really did have just a space where a door would normally be. Because we were going up I had to wear a flying suit like the rest of the team and did have a parachute attached to me in case anything went wrong and I did have to parachute to safety.
There was one feature in which my Welshness was really brought to the fore and it is the closest I possibly came to getting lynched by the readership.
It was March, St David’s Day had just gone and I had just celebrated my first birthday away from home. Tony Blandford saw it as the perfect chance to get a good look at Basildon, warts and all, from an “unbiased” outsider.
I certainly laid it on thick as I attacked the Brutalism (yes that is the proper architectural name for the style of buildings in Basildon) as I viewed the town centre from the fifth floor flat I now rented from the corporation in Brooke House, the towering apartment block slap bang in the middle of Basildon New Town.
I expressed my longing for the sounds of Welsh voices singing in harmony in a friendly country hostelry in my native Wales, as opposed to the late night caterwauling of drinkers staggering home from the plush velvet and chrome pubs of the new town.
It was a hard-hitting piece and was a centrespread in that week’s Recorder. Right up to the penultimate paragraph I was as brutal with my criticisms of Basildon as the builders had been with their architectural style.
In a bid to put reins on what I was sure would be the gathering lynch mob heading to the office on Friday I said that I was looking for the pros of the town as opposed to all the cons I had already described.
I think my final paragraph saved my life:
“Maybe the people – people here are comparable to the nice folk in Wales. So I guess that’s a very big plus. Better to have pleasant inhabitants and a crummy town rather than vice versa. But it’s a pity Basildon hasn’t got both.“
My landlords, the Basildon Development Corporation, may not have seen my parting shot as a saving grace but I think I had the majority of the population on my side.
NB: while I was still in Basildon a new block of flats was opened with the different levels each set back in a similar way to Aztec pyramids seen in the jungles of South America. Within weeks of the first residents moved it the development was dubbed “Alcatraz” by the people of Basildon.
I think I make my point.